Interpreting Women with Fear & Trembling

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Turn your head in any direction these days, and a discussion of gender is bound to be heard nearby. Naturally, this current cultural attention will also mean that books explaining the phenomenon, or ensuring its relevance is understood, populate book stores and online shopping carts en masse. There are those who will ignore such publications, those who flock to them, and those like me who are intrigued, but lack a sufficient entry point. Kregel Academic’s latest book serves as just such a starting place.

Vindicating the Vixens, edited by Sandra Glahn, is a collection of essays which seeks to evaluate the women found in the Bible who are often rated as second class actors, or in some way blamed for sinful actions which then disqualifies them as models of righteous behavior. Glahn is clear from the outset that the book is not an attempt to rewrite orthodox belief, but rather to use new tools and information to gain a clearer reading of the text. “Perhaps new data does not answer all our questions, but it may help us ask better questions,” (17). And as virtually every exegetical improvement over the years would attest, Glahn is right.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is the atrocious theology that it seeks to correct. I count myself blessed to have received the theological education I have over the last two decades, but in all my travels I have never heard of such awful exegesis and interpretation as is detailed in this book. Carolyn Custis James’s essay on Tamar and Eva Bleeker’s essay on Rahab begin with horrific accounts of pastors rendering highly suspect interpretations of the respective texts (see 43 & 50 for examples). I frequently found myself shocked by such accounts. Who could honestly read Ruth and come away with the idea that she behaved like “nothing more than a common harlot for initiating a marriage proposal to a man she had known for mere months” (59)?  If these are the kinds of things women routinely hear, then I can imagine that they would be frustrated. In this way, Vindicating the Vixens primarily offers a faithful reading of the text. The essays are well-written, and filled with great insight, but most of the points made are things that a straightforward reading of the texts in question should afford. That the state of Christian interpretation has reached a point where a book such as this is necessary seems sad.

But I don’t want to overstate the case, here. Vindicating is more than a corrective. It is a collection with an eclectic combination of male and female writers, who do not always agree, but who strive for submission to the text of Scripture. And the individual voices heard throughout the book provide a balanced, engaging perspective for every reader to consider. Even if you are like me, and find much of this information straightforward, there is still something to be learned. Two of the stand out essays are Christa McKirkland’s examination of Huldah (213-232) and Amy Peeler’s essay on Junia (273-285). For all my years of studying the Bible, I could remember hardly anything about these women, and these essays revealed just why I should keep them in mind.

Ultimately, I don’t think I can recommend this book enough. The importance of handling every story in the Bible with care and reverence cannot be underestimated. Vindicating the Vixens does just that, and provides the necessary background information and interpretive tools to help Christians read the women of the Bible the way the original authors intended.

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What do you do with Daniel?

9780825427619I have been a fan of Kregel Academic’s Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis Having read the volumes on the Prophets and the Historical books, I was pleased to receive a copy of their Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature, and quickly found myself challenged in a number of ways.

David Howard, professor of Old Testament at Bethel University, approaches the Biblical text from an exegetical and literary viewpoint. While the other volumes in this series deal almost exclusively with the Biblical writings, Howard’s analysis of the apocalyptic writings involves a detailed look at extra-biblical sources as well. This was unexpected, but served as one of the most engaging parts of the books. Though I was already familiar with The Book of Enoch and the like, I had only encountered them in minor ways, usually in a “why to avoid these books” kind of way. Howard, however, uses them in a way that reminds me of John Walton’s analysis of creation texts or Jeffery Niehaus’s look into Ancient Near Eastern polemics.

But rather than singularly focused cultural study, Howard’s remains primarily focused on exegetical problems of the Biblical text. Chapters 3 and 4 concentrate on the text itself, with chapter 5 laying out practical guidance on how to preach these texts despite their linguistic and cultural difficulties. Chapter 6 remains my favorite section, though, with Howard’s advice sampled through analyses of Daniel 8:1-27 and Joel 2:28-32. Here, Howard’s comfort with the genre and the Hebrew text shines forth, with sermon material that any pastor would benefit from.

Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature is perhaps a bit more academic than the other volumes I have read, particularly in terms of the literary comparisons. This quality might be of less interest to some laymen or pastoral counselors, but I think is necessary to the specific study of Old Testament writings. I recommend Howard’s work to anyone interested in the topic.

The Joy of Exegeting the Psalms

Ask most high school students what kind of literature the enjoy the least, they’ll likely say poetry. Its symbolism and patterns often create a sense of tedium for many readers. Of course, poetry is a beautiful form of writing, and as I say to my own students when we memorize poetry throughout the school year, appreciating the mastery of a single word can bring joy and satisfaction far beyond  merely reading a poem.

I have noticed a tendency of Christians, myself included, to sometimes take the same perspective on the Psalms. Originally written in Hebrew, English translations of the Psalms appear in different forms and try to encapsulate the beauty of the original language in a number of ways. A helpful way to explore these Biblical songs and poems is through an exegetical study, clarifying some of the ways the Hebrew text stresses and highlights ideas and concepts. If, like me, you’re not a Semitic languages scholar, then a nice commentary is a good place to start.

Dr. Allen P. Ross has 9780825426667authored a three-volume set of exegetical commentaries on the Psalms for Kregel Academic. I have reviewed two other entries in the Kregel Exegetical Library (Exodus and I & II Chronicles), and was fortunate enough to get my hands on the final entry in Dr. Ross’s trilogy. While I do hope to eventually acquire the rest, examining Psalms 90-150 proved a great adventure in and of itself.

The format is simple, with substantial background and contextual information before each psalm that demonstrated the immense amount of study that has been spent on the poetic parts of Scripture. I will use Psalm 119 to detail some of the highlights of Ross’s work.

While it is the dominant psalm of the Biblical collection, Psalm 119 has cause some to despair over its apparent repetition of ideas and words. Ross, however, concludes that this is the result of a poor reading of the text. First, the Psalm should be seen as a literary work. In terms of dating, Psalm 119 seems to have been written prior to the Exile (461) and is written in such a way that a preacher could approach the text from various ways to preach through it either by stanza or theme or both (463). After drawing the background information together, Ross works through the Psalm using its acrostic format as the outline. Each section is translated, followed by a brief content summary and exegetical outline. This outline also serves as the main points for the commentary, which is delivered in an expository form making it easy for pastors to work through the content in small sections.

As a result, Ross gives a work that any Christian could pick and work through, while also being a wonderful aid to a pastor who wants to lead their congregation through the Psalms.

Exegeting Exodus

9780825425516Studying the Bible in Hebrew is not for the faint of heart. As a young man, I learned first-hand how having a working knowledge that allowed me to use a Hebrew Greek concordance could enhance my study of God’s Word. Of course, I also learned that I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous to others and myself. It is often easier to latch on to an obscure meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word in order to make some kind of argument that suits your own personal interpretation. I have had discussions regarding the word “σταυρός” in the Gospels, where my dialogue partner was adamant that the word always meant “pike or pole” and demonstrated how Christians frequently believed lies passed on through history (a largely irrelevant point, even if true). I have also been on the receiving end of teaching that said Psalm 100 makes explicit the command to lift your hands in praise, despite the word there (“תּוֹדָה”) rarely meaning “to lift your hands” and the word most likely not meaning that in this particular Psalm. These kinds of disagreements are common, and have taught me two things: the need for my own humility, and the need for wiser input. Enter Duane Garrett’s A Commentary on Exodus.

A Commentary on Exodus is a masterpiece of Scriptural study. Garrett teaches Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his experience in both realms shows. The 130 page “Introduction” weaves history and textual criticism and theological debates into a coherent tapestry that illuminates the grand story of the Israelite people as they left the Egyptian kingdom. Garrett addresses the various “problems” with the text, and walks through the orthodox (and not so orthodox) ideas related to interpreting Exodus. He lands pretty clearly in the historically orthodox position, but he is cautious about asserting things that, in fact, are not known for certain. “In short, we have ample reason to believe that the biblical account is true, but we do not have sufficient evidence to specify the details of when it all happened and of what pharaoh was present,” (103). This kind of confident reticence is prevalent throughout the book, and is one of its charms.

The two portions of the commentary that were the most profitable in my reading were Part III and the Appendix. Part III, the longest section of the book, concentrated on the twelve miracles of the exodus, beginning with the transformation of Moses’ staff into a serpent and concluding with the death of Pharaoh’s army. Garrett’s break down of the twelve events into four categorical levels of intensity provided an insight I had not previously explored: the movement from warning to death. This is only one of the multiple highlights of Garrett’s exegetical prowess, and he continued to be just and astute in his concluding exploration of “The Songs of Exodus.” Though the Appendix is the shortest section of the book, Garrett’s thesis that these songs perhaps served as Israel’s earliest hymnody, as well as his pointing out sections I had not previously noticed to be poetic, prompts the reader for further study of this fascinating topic (722).

While the exegetical nature of this commentary might scare some laymen from picking it up, I believe that would do them a disservice. Garrett’s academic, yet winsome style makes this book accessible to a wide audience. The entire line of Kregel Exegetical Library books would be a welcome addition to any library, but this contribution on Exodus is a premier complement to the Biblical text. If I could only pick one commentary to have on the topic, it would be this one.

Reading Genesis

I encourage you to watch the powerpoint presentation above, filling out this handout as you watch, BEFORE you read this post.

This week we looked at how important it is to ask ourselves, “how am I supposed to read this?”

I don’t read an engine manual the same way I read a Stephen King novel, and rightfully so. Neither do I read a Robert Frost poem as though it were an article from the NY Times. Everyday we exercise our judgment regarding how  we read something, yet often the Church uses this notion selectively when applying it to the Bible.

Throughout Church history, different groups have said, “you should read X passage metaphorically because we believe Y,” (feel free to insert any other form of reading in place of metaphorically). We, as a people, tend to want to read the Bible a certain way to prove a certain point (this is ironic since often this is the accusation hurled at scientists by the same people). This is something we must move beyond.

I’m not saying that the Church has always been wrong (I, for instance, take Jesus literally when he says “no man may come to the Father but by me”), but we have to be willing to have our lives rearranged according to God’s purposes.

I encourage you, over the next couple of days, read Genesis 1-11 and ask yourself this question: “what is the Bible teaching me about who God is?” I think this is a far more valuable question than, “does this prove or disprove my scientific theory?”

As always, I welcome your thoughts.